18 Month Sleep Regression: What Causes It and What to Do?
What are “sleep regressions?”
Generally, when experts talk about sleep regressions, we’re talking about a situation where the quality and ease of a child’s sleep suddenly declines. Parents may see an increase in night wakings as well as nap and bedtime refusal.
Sleep regressions tend to fall into two groups: those caused by internal factors (such as brain growth and development) and those caused by external factors (like a change in routine due to illness or travel).
The sleep regressions caused by internal factors are the ones that get labeled by age and tend to strike fear into the hearts of new parents. Although “4 month,” “8 month” and “18 month” regressions are widely discussed as something all children experience, it’s important to note that these periods of rapid development don’t occur at the exact same age for all children and don’t always wreck havoc on young sleeper’s routines.
Rather, there are age ranges (typically 15-18 months in this case) where we tend to see similar sleep issues arise. Again, this will impact some toddlers, but certainly not all. The degree to which this development does impact a child’s sleep will depend on the individual child’s routines and their parent’s response.
What’s special about the “18 month” regression?
In the 14 -18 month age group, we see children really start settling into toddlerhood. That means they’re beginning to test boundaries and seek independence. Instead of laying down and falling asleep at bedtime like they’ve been doing, they’re suddenly exploring ideas like, “Hmmm...what would happen if I just kept playing instead? Or maybe I’ll throw all of my pacifiers on the floor! Hey, I wonder if I can climb out of this crib.”
Additionally, separation anxiety and teething are often at play at this age. So now, not only may your child feel clingier, they’ll often decide to experiment at this age with refusing to peacefully lay down and sleep.
To complicate matters, it’s also at this age that most children drop a nap and transition to one nap in the middle of the day. As kids adjust to staying awake for longer periods, they’re often overtired by bedtime. This in turn can lead to a surge in the hormone Cortisol, which makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
These factors can be a recipe for one cranky toddler, one who likely doesn’t have the communication skills necessary to calmly explain why they’re waking you up repeatedly each night. Cue the tears (and not just from the child).
What can parents do to minimize the effects?
Offer an age appropriate bedtime
When younger toddlers still take two naps their bedtime can start to creep later, which is often welcome. Afterall, later bedtimes can allow for a more leisurely dinner or additional play time together before bed. However, once a child drops to one nap, bedtime suddenly needs to be much earlier again (at least in the beginning). Many children in this age group can only comfortably stay awake for about 5 hours at a time. That means that if their nap ends at 1:00 PM, they may be ready for bedtime as early as 6:00 PM at first.
Use our SweetSpot® schedule predictor to determine the best nap and bedtime for your child after their nap transition. This can help limit overtiredness and the resulting sleep issues it can bring, especially during this period.
Consistency is key
While this age period has its challenges, it’s also a reminder that our children are developing. Our approach will need to develop and grow as well.
Once a child starts to explore and test boundaries, it’s the perfect time to start setting limits and have clear routines around sleep times, if you don’t already. We recommend having a consistent pre-sleep routine that ends in the same definitive way each time. For example, you might end the routine with the same lullaby each time before you kiss your child goodnight and leave.
Setting limits and consistently enforcing your routine will help children understand what to expect at sleep times. This leads to feeling of security and ultimately less tears. However, the more we “give in” and break from routine, the more likely we are to see sleep disruptions. When we intermittently reinforce boundary-testing behavior (by giving in sometimes, but not others), this only encourages the behavior.
Offer extra comfort as needed
While consistently enforcing healthy sleep routines is vital to maintaining your child’s sleep progress, there are times when kids need some extra TLC.
If your child is suddenly struggling to fall asleep independently, it makes sense that you’ll want to offer them more comfort especially if you suspect they’re in pain from teething or going through a strong bout of separation anxiety. Consider lengthening your pre-sleep routines to include extra cuddle time. Speak to your pediatrician about pain medication if necessary.
Parents who are used to independent sleepers may decide to help their child fall asleep on a temporary basis. While it’s understandable to want to help your toddler get the sleep they need, keep in mind that you’ll be re-setting their expectations surrounding sleep. If you start doing more to help your child fall asleep (like staying in the room when you used to leave), your child will start to expect that every night - and possibly through the night as well.
The regression hit us hard. Now what?
If you’re a parent who has decided to start helping their child fall asleep again during a regression, know that this doesn’t need to be a permanent situation. When your family is ready, we can help you get back on track. Huckleberry Premium was created to make sleep consultations for children more affordable for families. We take into consideration the uniqueness of every family's lifestyle as well as their sleep goals when working to create a successful sleep plan. If you are interested in more personalized analysis and guidance for your child, sign up for Huckleberry Premium.